Forest of Dean & Wye Valley

CO-OPERATION! The Co-operative Party celebrates its centenary

In A.Graham on July 4, 2017 at 12:29 pm

by Alistair Graham

This year marks the centenary of the foundation of the Co-operative Party. It was born in 1917, in the uncertain years of the First World War, as the conflict was dragging towards its bloody conclusion.

But its roots were sown in earlier years, the years before war engulfed Europe. The co-operative movement was growing rapidly – but the Liberal government was hardly sympathetic to this new movement. Many co-operators believed that it needed a political voice to represent the movement – in Parliament if need be.

There were those who opposed this view, of course. Those who argued that the movement was made up of members of various political (and indeed religious) views. At an early meeting of the Co-operative Congress in 1897 a motion was passed supporting direct representation in Parliament – but such was the lack of any enthusiasm, it was reversed in 1900.

But the issue wouldn’t go away. It was probably the position of the Liberal Government that was in power during the years leading up to the First World War that was a deciding factor. The Liberals may have been the “shopkeepers’ friend” – but this new, strange concept of co-operation was a different matter altogether.

The Liberal Government was definitely hostile to the ideals of co-operation. The notion of sharing out “surplus value” amongst members and giving them a say in how the Co-op was run, was definitely an alien concept. As for the Tories – well, let’s not go down that road!

All this led to the Co-operative Congress of 1917, held in Swansea, passing a resolution that stated the Co-op Movement should have direct representation in Parliament in order to safeguard its interests. There was some opposition of course, but it was passed overwhelmingly.

Success for the new Co-operative Party was slow in coming. The first Co-op candidate to win a seat was A.E. Waterson in Kettering in 1918 – and he soon lost it again (albeit narrowly). .

In 1922, the party won four seats, including that of A.V. Alexander (who went on to become leader of the group in the Commons). Meanwhile, the strength of the Labour Party was growing, and finally the two parties reached a joint agreement.

In more recent years the Co-operative Party has continued to function as an independent body, with its own conferences and policy making bodies. But as for the candidates there has been a tendency for those who stand as “Labour Co-op” candidates to be seen as merely Labour by the electorate.

ALISTAIR GRAHAM
(Member of the Co-operative Party and the Mid-counties Co-op Society.


A.V. ALEXANDER: A co-operator in Parliament – and outside.

Albert Victor Alexander rose through the Co-operative movement to become the Co-op MP for Sheffield Hillsborough in 1922./ At the time he was one of just four Co-op MPs, but he was to hold his seat (with one short break in the’30s) until 1950.

He became leader of the Co-op parliamentary group and at one time he was a Minister in the in Labour Government of Ramsay Macdonald. But he opposed the cuts introduced in the late 1920s (particularly the cuts in unemployment benefits). He lost his seat in the 1931 election, winning it back in 1933, and resumed his position as leader of the Co-operative Parliamentary group.

In 1950 he retired from the Commons to take up his seat in the House of Lords. Here he continued to represent the cause of co-operation until his death in 1965 at the age of 79.


 

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